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The Women Are Revolting: Charles G Harper and the Ladies of Llangollen

I’ve been reading The Holyhead Road: The Mail Coach Road to Dublin by Charles G Harper. It’s a whopping two-volume work, with each volume being around 300 pages. Harper (1863-1943) was a prolific author, illustrator and journalist, and a keen walker and cyclist. His other books include The Brighton Road, The Portsmouth Road, The Norwich Road and many others in the same vein, as well as books about ghosts, highwaymen, motoring and smuggling.

A keen cyclist

You might think that having to wade through two volumes of a book entitled The Holyhead Road: The Mail Coach Road to Dublin shows just how much a historical novelist is prepared to suffer for the sake of research. I thought so myself before I started reading the books. In fact, they turned out to be strangely entertaining. Reading Harper is like being in the company of some old-fashioned curmudgeon who likes nothing better than having a good swipe at the world and its oddities.

Writing of a statue of Prince Albert in Wolverhampton, for example, Harper tetchily describes it as “another example of the tiresome excess of loyalty that has planted statues of Royal personages thickly all over the kingdom, and has produced a dreary and unmeaning repetition of ‘Victoria’ and ‘Albert’ squares, streets, stations, museums, and what not, to the blotting out of the really interesting local names that had endured for centuries before the wallowing snob came upon the scene, like some evil pantomime sprite.”

The sight of the Wrekin, said to be the oldest mountain in England, inspired these thoughts:-

“It has seen mankind emerge from the primeval ooze and floating as invertebrate jelly-fishes in the inland sea that washed its base, and has watched the family from that interesting era to the present time…it will probably see the race itself follow the lead given by the governments of this country during the last sixty years, and resume the condition of invertebrata, wallowing in the slime.”

(Apply this paragraph as you like.)

He also has some very interesting theories on the ownership of mineral wealth – it should be public property – and land. He refers to an unnamed author of a Birmingham guidebook who wrote about the enclosure of common land around Handsworth as an “extraordinary person who seems to look upon this enclosing and filching of public property as virtuous and altogether praiseworthy, and talks with unctuous satisfaction of ‘at least 150 respectable houses erected on land which lay formerly entirely waste. Plots of land –’ he continues, with greasy delight – ‘have been sold from £200 to £1,000 an acre’.” Harper argues that such properties are “built upon stolen property, and the rents of the houses should by right go into municipal or imperial coffers, instead of private pockets”.

On the Brighton Road

His curmudgeonliness really shines, though, when he considers the Ladies of Llangollen. Lady Eleanor Butler (1739–1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831) twice attempted to run away from their unhappy homes in order to live together. Eventually their families gave forty-year-old Butler and twenty-three-year old Ponsonby permission to set up home in Llangollen. Here the Ladies planned, they said, to live in retirement.

Nonsense, says Harper. It’s very easy to find solitude in Wales, but it’s not to be found at Llangollen:-

“Why, it was a halting-place on the great road between two kingdoms; with kings and princes, lords-lieutenant, peers, members of Parliament, and the whole social circle to which these two humbugs belonged travelling constantly to and fro throughout the year, within hail of their windows.”

You might as well try to set up a “solitary cell on the platform of Willesden Junction”, snorts Harper. Sure enough, the Ladies were visited by “everyone who was anyone”. What particularly irked Harper was that they received a pension from the government (actually from King George III). “What national service did the Ladies of Llangollen render that they should have received a Government subsidy?” demands Harper. It irritates him that they are famous when “many worthier persons are unknown”. Perhaps what he calls their “masculine” attire frightened him: Harper was no feminist.

You have only to glance at Harper’s 1894 masterpiece, Revolted Woman, Past, Present and to Come to get a glimpse of how deep his terror ran. In this short book he lambasts women travellers, writers, journalists, sports women, women who take an interest in politics, post mistresses (they can’t add up or weigh parcels properly), and social reformers like Josephine Butler. He goes back to first causes, reminding us of woman’s part in the Fall: “For woman has ever been the active cause of sin, from the Fall to the present time, and doubtless will so continue until the end”. He accuses women of immorality, mannishness, promiscuity, bad language, indecency, and not putting the date on their letters.

“Woman,” he tells us, “is the irresponsible creature who cannot reason nor follow an argument to its just conclusion – who cannot control her own emotions, nor rid herself of superstition”. She “is altogether different from and inferior to man: narrow-chested, wide-hipped, ill-proportioned, and endowed with a lesser quantity of brains than the male sex”. Woman’s place, he declares, is the home, which is where biology has placed her.

But even in the home she's pretty useless. Wives throughout history have made many great men’s lives a misery because they were shrews, termagants, spiteful and quarrelsome. Berlioz’s wife’s “unreasonable jealousy” forced him to run away with another woman; Ann Hathaway was incapable of understanding Shakespeare’s work; Addison’s wife drove him to drink; Bulwer-Lytton’s wife was an insane virago; and so on and on. Yet though women are rubbish at domesticity, Harper thinks they must stick at it. Women who go into higher education, for example, will produce stunted children and this will ultimately lead to the end of the human race – and they’re too selfish to care.

A woman is incapable of having a career because “Woman never becomes more than an ineffectual amateur in all the careers she enters. Her practice in art and literature inevitably debases art and letters, for she is a copyist at most.” There are no women inventors because of “the inability of women to originate”. Any women who did succeed were “unsexed creatures”, or relied on cunning instead of ability. It wouldn’t be so bad, Harper thinks, if she “would be content to earn her wages in those manly employments she has poached, and to refrain from the cry of triumph she cannot forbear…but foolish women are clamorously greedy of self-glorification, and still instant (sic), in and out of season, in reviling the strength and mental agility of men which surpass their own and forbid for ever the possibility of female domination”. It must have been a great comfort to him to know that in the end women could never overturn male supremacy.

The mildly amusing curmudgeon of The Holyhead Road with his quaint traveller’s tales and stories of ye olde times seemed like a harmless fellow. His views are idiosyncratic, inconsistent, and sometimes amusing or at least amusingly expressed. You can imagine sitting opposite him in some country tavern blowing the foam off a jug of ale brewed the old-fashioned way, and laughing both with him and at him, with his own laugh being loudest and longest. In Revolted Woman, Harper crosses the border between grumpy eccentricity and potty prejudice by many a mile. It is such a bizarre diatribe of a book I’m half-inclined to suspect it’s a parody of anti-feminism. Surely no man could have been that daft?

The Holyhead Road: The Mail Coach Road to Dublin
, Charles G Harper, 2 vols (London: Chapman & Hall, 1902).

Revolted Woman, Past, Present and to Come
, Charles G Harper (London: Elkin Matthews, 1894) is available on Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/).

‘Butler, Lady (Charlotte) Eleanor (1739–1829)’, Elizabeth Mavor, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi-org.ezproxy2.londonlibrary.co.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/4182, Published in print and online: 23 September 2004, this version 25 May 2006.

The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship
, Elizabeth Mavor, (London: Joseph, 1971).

 

The Dog and Duck on the Portsmouth Road

Picture Credits 

A Keen Cyclist - from The Brighton Road: Old Times and New on a Classic Highway, Charles G Harper, British Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

On the Brighton Road - from The Brighton Road: Old Times and New on a Classic Highway, Charles G Harper, British Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

The Dog and Duck on the Portsmouth Road - from The Portsmouth Road and its Tributaries Today and in Days of Old, Charles G Harper, British Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions


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